Under the Railway Line

Christian Davies on the battle for Poland’s history

One Sunday in October 2017, a crowd gathered outside Our Lady, Queen of Polish Martyrs church, in the eastern Warsaw neighbourhood of Grochów. They were there to see the unveiling of a commemorative plaque: ‘In Memory of the 200,000 Poles Murdered in Warsaw in the German Death Camp KL Warschau.’ Flanked by two soldiers, the plaque was sprinkled with holy water by a priest and then saluted by an army officer, who laid a wreath. The crowd sang the national anthem. In a country littered with memorials to its own suffering, where public life is punctuated by commemorations of the fallen, the ceremony would have been unremarkable were it not for the fact that there is absolutely no evidence that two hundred thousand Poles were murdered in KL Warschau.

As with all good conspiracy theories, there are some elements of truth to the story. There was a camp in German-occupied Warsaw called Konzentrationslager Warschau or KL Warschau, where many thousands of Polish citizens died. Located on the edge of what became the Warsaw Ghetto, it was known in Polish as ‘Gęsiówka’ after the street on which it was located (ulica Gęsia, or Goose Street). Previously a Polish military prison, it was commandeered by Himmler’s Reich Main Security Office after the capture of Warsaw in 1939 and later turned into a concentration camp. After the ghetto was liquidated in 1943, the camp was populated mainly by Jews from elsewhere in Europe who were used as forced labour to clear up the ghetto’s ruins; it also contained extermination facilities and a crematorium. Most of its surviving inmates were transferred to other camps in July 1944 but 348 remained and were liberated the next month by the Zośka battalion of the Polish underground Home Army during the Warsaw Uprising (in a twist of fate of the sort common in Polish history, members of the Home Army were imprisoned in the camp by the NKVD after the Red Army took control of the city).

Around twenty thousand people – Polish Jews, non-Jewish Poles and non-Polish Jews – are estimated to have died at Gęsiówka. But some Polish nationalists have long argued that the camp was in fact only the nucleus of a network of facilities established by the Germans to exterminate the city’s non-Jewish population. The argument was first developed in the 1970s, when Maria Trzcińska, a judge who served on the communist government’s Main Commission for the Investigation of Nazi Crimes in Poland, alleged that there had been a camp complex in Warsaw’s western suburbs. Her most controversial claim was that the road tunnel on Józef Bem Street that runs under the railway line near Warsaw West station had been converted into a giant gas chamber where up to two hundred thousand mostly non-Jewish Poles had been killed. This is the source of the claim on the plaque in Grochów.

The notion of a ‘Polocaust’ (a term used by some Polish right-wingers) allows those who are resentful of the international attention the Holocaust receives to claim a parity of suffering. Crudely, if you take the two hundred thousand people sometimes estimated to have died in the Warsaw Uprising, and add the two hundred thousand supposedly murdered at KL Warschau, you get four hundred thousand, which is roughly the number of Jews imprisoned in the Warsaw Ghetto, almost all of whom died there or at Treblinka or Majdanek. If it could be proved that the Germans had built a gas chamber for the purpose of exterminating non-Jewish Poles, this would undermine the status of the Holocaust as a crime of unique proportions. It is a standard trope on the Polish nationalist right that Jews have exaggerated their victimhood in order to extort money from the Poles and obtain global power and influence.

So, why was almost no one in Poland aware of the existence of this additional death camp in the centre of the country’s capital? The answer reads like a nationalist fever dream, in which all of the nation’s historic enemies play a role: the Germans covered it up because they didn’t want to pay reparations for Nazi crimes; the Jews covered it up because they didn’t want to give up their share of the global victims’ market; the Russians and Polish communists covered it up because they ran the facility after the war (in these circles, ‘Jew’ and ‘communist’ are often used interchangeably); Poles in the know covered it up because they were bribed or brainwashed by foreign interests.

When Trzcińska outlined her claims in a monograph published in 2002, they were rejected by the Institute of National Remembrance (IPN), a state body with prosecutorial powers established after the fall of communism to conduct research, administer state archives and adjudicate on important historical debates. In 2007, the historian Bogusław Kopka published a book under the aegis of the IPN that criticised Trzcińska’s thesis and estimated the number of victims of Gęsiówka at twenty thousand. But the more Trzcińska’s claims were challenged, the more determined her supporters became. Marches, demonstrations, public meetings and religious ceremonies were held, bogus maps circulated, false testimonies promoted, Wikipedia entries amended. Worst of all, plaques and monuments bearing false witness to the secret genocide started to appear around the city.

Seeking a resolution, IPN prosecutors turned in 2010 to Zygmunt Walkowski, who specialises in using photographs and film footage to reconstruct Warsaw’s wartime history. Born in 1936, Walkowski witnessed Warsaw’s destruction during the war. He worked as a producer at the Documentary Film Studio in Warsaw between 1955 and 1982, when he was demoted to the studio stock room after he was discovered to be engaged in underground activity on behalf of the trade union Solidarność. In the late 1980s, as the crumbling communist regime started to retreat from its longstanding policy of suppressing discussion of the wartime past, he was given the task of unearthing previously unseen footage of the Warsaw Uprising. He set about establishing the time and location of the filmed events, developing a talent for historical detective work.

After the fall of communism, Walkowski was asked to produce accounts of Warsaw’s wartime history for use in the country’s museums. In 2007, working in the US National Archives, he unearthed a cache of aerial surveillance photographs taken over Warsaw by the Luftwaffe between 1940 and 1945: high-quality images, with time stamps and identification numbers. By cross-referencing the images with photos, film footage, documentary evidence and witness testimonies, Walkowski was able to reconstruct events in minute detail. It was for this reason that the IPN tasked him with establishing the veracity of Trzcińska’s claims.

One of Trzcińska’s key propositions was that the Germans had built a barracks in Koło, a neighbourhood in the west of the city, for the purpose of imprisoning Poles. But municipal records and the testimonies of people who lived there make clear that the barracks referred to had been built before the war as housing for workers employed on the trams or at the gasworks. Walkowski found photos from the 1930s of the buildings and their residents, as well as dated letters sent to people who had lived there. Trzcińska had also claimed that a nearby forest had been used as a killing field. This incensed many local residents, who knew it wasn’t true. When Trzcińska’s supporters placed a memorial stone in the forest they poured paint over it in protest. Walkowski found evidence, including photographs, that proved the residents were right: Poles had been able to walk in the forest throughout the war. A separate facility attributed by Trzcińska to the Germans doesn’t appear in aerial photographs until long after the war. Resistance fighters from the Home Army had conducted a reconnaissance mission to the site, but didn’t mention the facility in their reports. Walkowski also debunked testimony claiming that the Germans had used a wall in Koło to string up Poles ‘like grapes on a vine’. The wall was built in 1972.

Walkowski then demolished Trzcińska’s thesis about the Józef Bem Street tunnel, which, she had argued, had been closed off in order to be used as a gas chamber. But aerial images from the period clearly show cars and horses entering the tunnel from the north and emerging moments later from the south. This footage as well as the plans filed with the city authorities confirmed that the ventilation shafts Trzcińska’s supporters believed were built by the Germans for the purpose of gassing people were installed in the mid-1970s. An electric ventilator engine treated by nationalists as a holy relic also dated back to the early 1970s; the company that manufactured it wasn’t founded until decades after the war.

The ‘eyewitness accounts’ cited by Trzcińska turned out to be just as unreliable. A woman called ‘Aldona’ claimed to remember watching from her window at night as Poles were loaded into the tunnel by SS officers wearing black uniforms. The SS in occupied Poland wore grey-green uniforms, not black ones. They did, however, wear black uniforms in a popular TV drama about a Polish secret agent broadcast in the late 1960s. Aldona also claimed that several times a week the German authorities forced the whole neighbourhood to turn off their lights and close their curtains so that they wouldn’t see the gas chamber in operation. But everyone in Warsaw was required to observe a blackout as a standard precaution during bombing raids.

Walkowski took seven years to complete his investigation, outlining his findings in a series of low-key public presentations in early 2017. His conclusions provoked a furious reaction from Trzcińska’s disciples (she died in 2011), who accused him of working for foreign intelligence, of being a traitor and a liar, a Commie and a Jew, of falsifying the images from the US National Archives, and spreading Nazi propaganda. Now in his eighties, he has received abuse and threats of violence, forcing him to buy a reinforced door for his apartment. When I visited him last summer he was still getting anonymous phone calls.

None of this will surprise anyone who has upset Polish nationalists in the past. Less expected, however, was the determined silence from the IPN, which commissioned Walkowski’s investigation. The IPN came under the control of the Law and Justice party (PiS) after its victories in the presidential and parliamentary elections of 2015. PiS’s links to nationalist activists have strengthened over the past decade as the smaller parties to its right have collapsed, bequeathing it many of their voters and politicians. PiS leaders repeat nationalist arguments that liberal elites at home and abroad are seeking to shame and weaken the country by obsessing over Polish crimes while ignoring or obscuring crimes against Poles. This chimes with the nationalist belief that the truth about KL Warschau, and, by extension, about Polish suffering, is being suppressed in the interests of American Jewry.

This convergence between PiS leaders and Trzcińska’s supporters means that the party has long supported those peddling the KL Warschau conspiracy theory. In 2014, PiS MEPs invited Mira Modelska-Creech, the most prominent proponent of the death camp theory since Trzcińska’s death, to give a lecture on KL Warschau to members of the European Parliament. In a letter to the head of the IPN, she suggested that liberal politicians have ‘concocted fake evidence in order to compensate Jewish circles, who have invested millions in the so-called “Holocaust Business” to enforce the thesis that only Jews died in camps’. I recently obtained a copy of a letter from Jarosław Kaczyński, the leader of PiS, to Modelska-Creech, in which he describes her activities as ‘worthy of particular support’, adding that ‘it is of fundamental importance that we do not neglect work on deepening historical awareness, especially among young people.’ After it took power, PiS disbanded the council of historians that adjudicated on public memorials, which had sided with protesters against the KL Warschau monuments. At the unveiling ceremony in Grochów, a PiS MP, Andrzej Melak, gave a speech describing the plaque as ‘living history, which every Pole should know’.

The IPN hasn’t publicised Walkowski’s findings, even though its prosecutors accepted his arguments and closed the investigation into KL Warschau in January 2017. In November last year I received a letter from an IPN prosecutor in Warsaw accepting the figure of twenty thousand victims and stating that the existence of ‘any camp infrastructure in the neighbourhood of the Warsaw West railway station or gas chambers used to exterminate prisoners in the tunnel under this railway station’ had been refuted ‘beyond any doubt’. This contradicted a separate communication I received from the IPN’s Office of Historical Research, which appeared to indicate that the issue was still undecided. It described the figure of two hundred thousand victims as not ‘sufficiently proved’, suggested that the existence of a gas chamber in the tunnel ‘cannot be ruled out’, and concluded that ‘undoubtedly the matter should be further examined by historians.’ The IPN has refused to respond to my inquiries regarding the contradiction between the two statements.

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Last September, I went to one of the monthly masses dedicated to the victims of KL Warschau at the church of St Stanisław the Martyr in the western suburb of Wola, not far from the Józef Bem Street tunnel. This church also has a KL Warschau plaque, adorned with a despairing Jesus and a sea of skulls. It reads: ‘In Tribute to the 200,000 Poles Murdered by the German Occupiers in the Death Camp KL Warschau, in the Years 1942-1944.’ A bronze plate affixed to the plaque says: ‘On the basis of the book by Maria Trzcińska.’ After the mass, around forty people, almost all of them elderly, gathered outside to lay flowers, listen to speeches and sing the national anthem. Some carried banners and crosses and wore the white and red armbands of the soldiers of the Home Army.

The ceremony was followed by a procession from the church to the tunnel. Every twenty or thirty metres, the participants stopped, kneeled down and started praying. Muffled, mournful music emanated from a large speaker carried on a trolley. They were doing the Stations of the Cross. It was dark by the time we finally entered the tunnel. Above the graffiti that lined the walls were rows of little crosses. People lit candles and said prayers as the leader of the group explained that the tunnel’s ventilation system had been used as an instrument of mass murder thirty years before it had been installed. A couple of men noticed me taking notes. They were pleasant, inquisitive. One told me solemnly that the soil we had been walking on was mixed with the ashes of the victims of the gas chamber. When I asked him what he thought about those who disagreed that there had been a death camp here, he blamed pressure from ‘foreign interests’.

It’s perhaps unsurprising, given the decades of propaganda directed at Poles by various occupying powers, and the cover-up of real atrocities such as the mass execution of Polish officers by the Soviets at Katyń in 1940, that some should believe that a huge death camp in the nation’s capital could have been hidden for so long. The Germans did plan to enslave the Poles, murder the educated classes and eradicate the national culture, and they did succeed in destroying Warsaw. But they never attempted the systematic mass murder of all Polish citizens. The worst thing about being in that tunnel was not that the people around me believed that so many of their compatriots were gassed there. It was that they so desperately wanted it to be true.